Spring semester seeks to define ‘hybrid’ courses

A masked student uses a laptop to attend class outside the North Avenue Apartments. Students have had to adapt to hybrid courses this semester. // Photo by Tuna Ergan Student Publications

Remote synchronous or asynchronous? Hybrid touch point, split, or hands-on? Registration season nears for spring 2021, and meanwhile Tech administration have been devising a plan for class instruction for a semester ahead that still looks largely unknown.

Dr. Kayla Ross, Assistant Vice Provost for Advocacy and Conflict Resolution, and Dr. Casey Chaviano, Assistant Director for Assessment & Planning for the Office of Undergraduate Education have collected both quantitative and qualitative data from about the classroom experiences this past fall, whether that be residential, hybrid or remote.

They held 28 focus groups in which students and faculty spoke to personal experiences with lab and lecture hall etiquette, classes getting moved online last minute and flexibility for students.

To better understand what worked and what did not, they also sent out a survey through email to collect data from the Institute at large, which received 6,853 responses.

The surveys and focus groups found that students enrolled in residential courses reported the highest levels of engagement compared to hybrid or online courses.

“While all course modes appear to provide similar opportunities for students to effectively learn the material, technology challenges and dual mode instruction often detracted from the learning environment, particularly in the hybrid course,” read the report.

At the beginning of the fall, many students wondered what hybrid classes would entail. With pandemic-related concerns, the answer has been “it depends.”

For the current semester, the registrar’s office announced on July 20 that every course would be as residential (in-person with physical distancing), hybrid with limited in-person attendance, or remote.

“The majority of courses will have some in-person attendance. The health and safety of our students and faculty are our top priority in setting all class modes,” the registrar’s site said at the beginning of fall semester, but students argue that this has not been the case.

Any course designated as hybrid or residential has an assigned classroom in OSCAR, however many professors have opted to teach remotely regardless of the hybrid format.

Fifth-year ENVE Elisabeth McDonnell’s schedule exemplified the conflicting requirements for hybrid classes. Her classes were all designated as “hybrid,” but none of them have met in person the whole semester. While some professors did say that there would be an optional in-person component later in the semester, none have announced more.

“One of the hardest things is monitoring student engagement,” said McDonnell. “It’s a lot easier for me to sit in my room and get distracted because I don’t have the teacher looking at me.

“I would have 100% choose to do in person. I think that’s partially because it’s my last semester of college, and my last chance to take regular classes. At the same time, having some sort of variation to your life, even just getting out of your room and walking to a class, is so important for your mental health.”

“Communications weren’t explicit enough,” said Dr. Laurence Jacobs when discussing course modes for this fall. “A student wants to register for a course and asks ‘Can you tell me what the expectations for this course are?’ Or ‘what exactly does a hybrid course mean?’ ‘Do I have to come to campus? Can I take this course remotely?’ So, how do we do a better job in that, how do we do a better job of defining what hybrid means?”

When looking towards spring, the Office of the Provost tries to balance defining course requirements for spring while still allowing faculty flexibility.

Of course, decisions like this take time.

The course schedule for spring semester originally was scheduled to come out this past Wednesday, Oct. 12, but students will now have to wait until Nov. 2 to see course offerings.

The Provost’s staff discussed concerns with course modes next semester so that remote students can begin to evaluate whether or not it would be time to return to campus. According to Dr. Colin Potts, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the three formats from fall will remain the same with a focus on better guidance for students on what courses will look like during the spring term.

“We are rolling out a better version of the course expectations tool, so that you should see a brief description linked from Banner before registering for a course,” Dr. Potts said.

In addition to clarity on course expectations for hybrid or residential courses, the provost’s office also said that hybrid split, touch point, or hands on will no longer exist as designations.

“Students deserve to understand at the beginning of the semester what they’re signing up for,” said Dr. Potts. “We’ve heard from many people that students are not experiencing the class they thought they would, and we want to do a better job of that as an institution next semester. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to be doing it the same way, it just means that we want to communicate in advance more effectively so that you know what you’re going to experience in class.”

The new course description tool will aid students in managing expectations during registration. In the coming weeks, Dr. Potts encourages students to utilize their academic advisors to discuss their options in extenuating circumstances.